1.Animals produce sounds for diverse biological functions such as defending territories, attracting mates, deterring predators, navigation, finding food and maintaining contact with members of their social group. Biologists can take advantage of these acoustic behaviours to gain valuable insights into the spatial and temporal scales over which individuals and populations interact. Advances in bioacoustic technology, including the development of autonomous cabled and wireless recording arrays, permit data collection at multiple locations over time. These systems are transforming the way we study individuals and populations of animals and are leading to significant advances in our understandings of the complex interactions between animals and their habitats. 2.Here, we review questions that can be addressed using bioacoustic approaches, by providing a primer on technologies and approaches used to study animals at multiple organizational levels by ecologists, behaviourists and conservation biologists. 3.Spatially dispersed groups of microphones (arrays) enable users to study signal directionality on a small scale or to locate animals and track their movements on a larger scale. 4.Advances in algorithm development can allow users to discriminate among species, sexes, age groups and individuals. 5.With such technology, users can remotely and non-invasively survey populations, describe the soundscape, quantify anthropogenic noise, study species interactions, gain new insights into the social dynamics of sound-producing animals and track the effects of factors such as climate change and habitat fragmentation on phenology and biodiversity. 6.There remain many challenges in the use of acoustic monitoring, including the difficulties in performing signal recognition across taxa. The bioacoustics community should focus on developing a common framework for signal recognition that allows for various species' data to be analysed by any recognition system supporting a set of common standards. 7.Synthesis and applications. Microphone arrays are increasingly used to remotely monitor acoustically active animals. We provide examples from a variety of taxa where acoustic arrays have been used for ecological, behavioural and conservation studies. We discuss the technologies used, the methodologies for automating signal recognition and some of the remaining challenges. We also make recommendations for using this technology to aid in wildlife management. (c) 2011 The Authors. Journal of Applied Ecology (c) 2011 British Ecological Society.